By Carl Stagner
In 2006, Warner Auditorium, which housed the Church of God Convention (“camp meeting”) since the early 1960s, came down. Asbestos had claimed the structure, deeming the “the dome” unsafe for occupancy. But before the dome, there was the “old tabernacle.” This iconic structure, too, met an untimely demise after a snowstorm claimed it. In recent years, the site has remained empty and relatively lifeless. But Anderson University has recently given new life to the plot of land, reclaiming and rededicating those holy grounds for prayer.
Can you imagine how many prayers have been offered up over the years at the sites of the old tabernacle and Warner Auditorium? Or how many people have given their lives to Christ, been healed, accepted calls to ministry and missions, and been changed forever? Now pause to imagine how many more prayers will be offered up and lives touched by the Lord through Anderson University’s latest resource for prayer. And give thanks.
Rooms, corners, and gardens dedicated to prayer already exist on the campus of AU, but a new place for prayer has been constructed at the site of Warner Auditorium—connecting not only the school’s Christ-centered history, but the rich heritage of the Church of God movement. “For those of you who grew up coming to Camp Meeting, spending time in Warner Auditorium, this is our way of memorializing this space, this holy ground, in the Church of God,” John Pistole, AU president, explains.
Celebrating fifty years, Anderson University constructed and lit their eternal flame. After seventy-five years, the institution unveiled the sculpture known as Helios, a “metaphor for the searching, illuminating, ever-growing phenomenon that we call a university.” This year at homecoming, following the school’s 100th anniversary year in which the idea took root, AU dedicated its centennial prayer labyrinth.
At the entrance to the labyrinth, an informational display will be constructed with the bricks of Warner Auditorium, further giving tribute to the facility where Christ was exalted and countless Christians were discipled. A brief history of the sacred grounds is expected to be included, as is a brief history and explanation of the ancient Christian practice of using labyrinths as a resource for prayer. Preserving even more of the heritage of the site, the original bell will also be included in the display.
Prayer labyrinths look like a maze, but aren’t intended to confuse users or render them lost. Those who enter walk through at a relaxed pace, encouraged to slow down from the hurried pace of life and simply dialogue with the Lord. Symbolizing the journey of life, moving toward the center of the prayer labyrinth encourages the believer to listen to the Spirit, meditate on what He is saying, and move back out of the labyrinth renewed and equipped to bring the hope of the gospel into the world.
“Engaging our bodies in the prayer experience offers a unique experience to engage in prayer, to listen, and to reflect,” Tamara Shelton, campus pastor, explains. “There’s nothing magical about it, but it’s a tool.”
While some have used and abused labyrinths for purposes other than Christian prayer and reflection, the historic Christian practice has only led believers closer to the Lord. Across the spectrum of Christian faith traditions, the use of labyrinths to aid in prayer has been a longstanding tradition, widespread and effective. Eastern Mennonite University offers a helpful illustration of the reclamation of mechanisms like labyrinths as tools to aid in spiritual disciplines of the Christian walk. “The labyrinth is a pre-Christian symbol, like adorning an evergreen tree with lights at Christmas or the symbol of the cross. Like these and other symbols, Christians have adopted and embraced the symbol of the labyrinth and, in effect, have redeemed and baptized it for Christian use. Like most symbols, it is primarily the orientation of the user, and not the symbol itself, that dictates whether it is used for harm or good.”
Tamara Shelton, as well as other members of the planning committee, had experienced prayer labyrinths firsthand, long before this year’s ceremony on the AU campus. They know the beauty of the unique prayer experience it offers. Connie Hippensteel, a member of the committee and the daughter of the late former AU president, Robert Reardon, is one example. She was one of several speakers at the dedication on September 29 and is blessed to see the space come alive again with Christ-centered, worshipful activity. “To reuse and rededicate this land, and have people think about the history of what has happened here, is beautiful to me,” she reflects. “This is a holy space. With everyone so connected to technology, here is a space on campus where people can go to let go of all that and be open to the Holy Spirit.”
Jason Varner, assistant professor of the history of Christianity for Anderson University, grew up going to camp meeting in Warner Auditorium. He also remembers the moment of reverence and nostalgia when the structure came down as he stood next to our Movement’s beloved Gilbert Stafford. “It was reverence not for the building itself, but for what it represented,” he reflects. “That is a physical, geographic point around which the spiritual unity of the Church of God had arranged itself for eight decades.”
In his address at the ceremony, Jason offered these words of conclusion: “Today, as we dedicate this prayer labyrinth, we look backwards with thanksgiving, but we also look forward with expectation. May this continue to be a place of prayer and encounter—a place that fans the flames of holiness and unity.”